Avoiding data center planning delays: a lesson from Ireland
Barry Sheridan & Shauna Woods
Ever-more critical to business, keeping many operational during the coronavirus pandemic, data centers are also increasingly important to Ireland’s economic and digital future. However, securing planning permission is often fraught with delay. AECOM’s Environment & Sustainability Sector Lead, Barry Sheridan, and Associate Director of Planning Shauna Woods, look at the success of a recent data center campus to explain how meticulous site selection, risk assessments and due diligence can streamline the approvals process.
The data center industry in Ireland has been booming over the last decade. A skilled workforce, access to EU markets and a low corporate tax regime have led to numerous global tech companies setting up their European headquarters and hosting digital assets in the country. Ireland has generated over €7 billion in economic benefit in construction alone since 2010, with total planned data center investment expected to exceed €1.5 billion in 2021.
Despite their cornerstone role to business and to Ireland’s future, data centers are difficult to get through planning with objections, subsequent appeals and legal challenges linked to their perceived social and environmental impacts leading to lengthy delays. In May 2018, Apple scrapped its plans for a €850 million data center in Athenry, County Galway, as a result of two years of appeals. Although the objections failed in court, Apple did not proceed with development due to the difficulties encountered throughout the consenting process.
New legislation aims to streamline the process by classifying data centers over certain sizes as strategic infrastructure developments. This means applicants must apply directly to Irish planning authority, An Bord Pleanála, rather than to the local planning authority, avoiding the need for two separate statutory processes as required under the Planning and Development Act 2000. However, even with the new legislation, securing planning consent remains one of the biggest challenges to getting data centers built.
AECOM partnered with a US tech company to gain planning approval for a data center development on former farmland that includes three 36MW data centers and a 220kV substation. In this article, we share four insights that helped smooth the planning application process, valid for Ireland but also across similar jurisdictions in Europe.
1/ Start early and anticipate risk
The key priority for data center developers is speed to market: the sooner they can use, sell or lease space in their facilities, the better. To ensure a speedy approval process, meticulous site selection and assessments should happen well before applying for planning permission. Selecting a site that meets the developer’s needs and environmental and planning requirements will avoid wasted time.
2/ Balancing needs and requirements
We work alongside IDA Ireland, a statutory agency for inward investment, to assess numerous sites for development, analyzing client needs alongside planning and environmental requirements and project program requirements. This involved conducting detailed planning and environmental feasibility reports for each site, looking at factors such as development plan zoning, utility conditions, site size, potential for future expansion, visual impact, ground conditions, transport links and sensitive habitats. As well as analyzing and comparing the results of the reports, we consulted with the local planning authorities, the local community and utility and service providers among others. As a result of this, a clear site emerged as the preferred location.
3/ A robust case for success
Completed over nine months, our detailed pre-planning work proved crucial to the campus being approved without delays. The site was awarded planning consent without either planning authority calling for oral hearings or requesting further information. Through pre-planning consultations with the local council and the Irish planning authority we also carried out a common environmental impact assessment (EIA) looking at potential significant impacts of the substation developments as well as the data center in a single reference document. Typically, separate EIAs are required for any one proposal, and this pioneering approach helped smooth future expansion.
4/ Preparing for the future
With the site now operational, we are working with the client to expand the campus with two further data centers and an associated substation on an adjacent site. Once again, our planning application for the additional centers and substation has been approved by the planning authorities without an oral hearing. The new legislation means any subsequent large-scale applications will have to go direct to the Irish planning authority, and the robustness of the application package will continue to be paramount. Our team has provided several follow-on services to this client, including environmental oversight and planning compliance throughout the construction period, including design change impact assessment and archaeological and ecological works across the expanded campus.
Transferable services and trusted relationships
Based in from our Mission Critical Centre of Excellence in Dublin, the AECOM team is now delivering similar services across Europe, the Middle East and Africa serving multiple clients. Success requires getting it right at every stage of the journey, from initial concept feasibility through to delivery. Many of the lessons learned in the Republic of Ireland are applicable across the region, minimizing program delay and time to market whilst fast-tracking delivery.